Cafe Rouge, 9-11 Villiers Street, London

I don't need to tell you about Café Rouge, do I? You've probably been to one. You may even be in one right now (in which case, hey, relax, it's OK, no one's judging you). The ubiquitous mid-market chain, with over 115 branches and counting, probably serves more French, or at least French-ish, food to Britons than all our other Gallic restaurants put together. Bridget Jones and her friends got drunk there, and it has introduced a generation of terrified Anglo-Saxons to such unknown pleasures as moules marinières and croque monsieur. But now, more than 20 years after the first branch opened, the familiar bistro-meets-snug bar look is getting a little fatigué, and clean-cut newcomers like Côte are setting the pace. So Café Rouge is regenerating.

The new look has just been unveiled, with the opening of the group's latest bistro on a prime spot next to Charing Cross station in central London. Villiers Street is a narrow cut-through to the Embankment which serves as an informal Research and Development lab for the hospitality industry. The first branch of Eat opened there (designed by David Collins, who was also responsible for the original look of Café Rouge). Today, the street is lined with chains, would-be chains and oddities such as Herman Ze German, which serves curry wurst with pommes frites. Truly we've come a long way since the days when Brits were frightened of boeuf bourguignon.

In classic Café Rouge tradition, the new branch has taken over a corner site formerly occupied by a pub. We breezed in, past the pavement placards shouting 'Vive le Bistro' and 'New-look Café Rouge starts here', only to find the place absolutely rammed, at 6pm on a Sunday evening. Why were we surprised? They haven't got where they are today by not being busy. And the moodily-lit dining room does look fairly inviting. Just like a real restaurant, in fact, only a lot more crowded.

Where the old Café Rouge felt friendly and casual, the redesign is more sober, and distinctly more expensive. The traditional template – dark wood, bentwood chairs, framed memorabilia – has been sharpened up with oversized red leather banquettes, a slate floor and funky industrial-style pendant lamps. There's a pristine zinc bar in a corner, with a TV showing international news, and a wall of spotlit wine bottles, suspended as if in amber, divides the main dining room from the less favoured areas beyond.

It was to one of these areas – a cramped and windowless cave holding a handful of tables – that we were whisked by our greeter, passing en route a perfectly nice empty table for four in the window. Back here, in the holding pen for families and tourists, the chic, grown-up look of the main dining room gives way to something much less bistro-ish, though to try and position this area – with its scarlet seating and white walls jittery with faux-casual murals – on any kind of scale between bistro and brasserie would be as relevant as debating the various circles of hell.

A new menu was rolled out nationally in April, in advance of the redesign, introducing a new section of small plates, various tartines, and some bistro classics you can't quite believe weren't on it before, such as bouillabaisse and coq au vin. What's striking isn't just the menu's length – no fewer than 17 main courses – but the relatively high prices. With mains at £10.95-£16.95, it's on a par with Côte.

The 'petit plats', at £3 each or 4 for £10, look good value, but they aren't kidding about the 'petit' – each tiny ramekin contains about four bites, though the duck rillettes tasted freshly prepared and authentic. As did a twice-baked cheese soufflé, which prompted Harry to say, "If I got this in a proper restaurant, I'd be quite pleased".

Not so the steak frites. Billed as "succulent, prime sirloin steak", the meat was tough and ragged, and seemed to grow in the mouth the longer you chewed it. The meat was also the weak link in one of the new dishes, poulet jaune grillé, whose juxtaposition of dry, exhausted chicken and pert baby tomatoes brought to mind Hugh Hefner's recent engagement photos. Bouillabaisse was better, built on a decent stock with a saffronish warmth to it, and clearly made from scratch.

A blameless crème brûlée and a screechingly sharp lemon tart, from the Tesco Finest school of patisserie, continued the not-bad-enough-to-be-bad, not-good-enough-to-be-good, theme of the meal. And with long waits between courses, it turns out that not only is Café Rouge not cheap, it isn't quick, either.

I know, I know. Critic goes to chain restaurant and has a bad time. Not exactly headline news, is it? But I genuinely hoped for better. Still, if ever a restaurant was critic-proof, it's this one. Owned by the giant restaurant group that also operates Bella Italia and Strada, it's about as far as you can get from the traditional, le-patron-mange-ici French corner bistro. So even though I didn't much enjoy the all-new Café Rouge, I think it's probably going to survive.

Café Rouge, 9-11 Villiers Street, London, WC2, (020-7925 2142)

Food 2 stars
Ambience 2 stars
Service 3 stars

Around £30 a head for three courses before wine and service

Tipping policy

"Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"

Side Orders: Café culture

Café Gandolfi Popular Glasgow café serving classics dishes including meatloaf, pastrami sandwiches, Arbroath smokies and black pudding. 64 Albion Street, Glasgow (0141 552 6813)

Riding House Café Choose between the inspired £3-£5 sharing plates or mains such as chorizo hash browns at this popular new place. 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, London W1 (020-7927 0840)

Hive Beach Café Try the hot shellfish platter with lobster, crab, langoustines, crevettes and scallops in white wine and cream. Beach Road, Burton Bradstock (01308 897 070)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence